My O.C.: Notorious CdM

Could those privileged Corona del Mar High School kids be all right after all?

Corona del Mar is an anomaly, an incongruity of epic proportion. Nestled in a protected pocket of Newport Beach, the neighborhood is an alternate world that spins on its own axis: privilege, hard work, glamour, drama, and really, really good kids. I should know. I just spent my first full year of teaching at Corona del Mar High School. Room 504 to be exact—the nether regions of campus, otherwise known as the art department, an unlikely place for an English teacher, but hey, it was the only room available and first-year teachers do not complain, they comply and are happy to do so.

Having spent my year of student teaching at Laguna Hills followed by a long-term stint as a substitute at Mission Viejo, two high schools where socioeconomic status ranged from upper-middle class to struggling, single-parent families, I had no idea what to expect from CdM or its decisively different demographic. These experiences, coupled with my own modest background attending school in Bellflower, made me leery of rubbing shoulders with kids who had rarely, if ever, faced financial adversity. I was just thankful for a job. Who cares what ZIP code it’s in?

Kids are kids, right?

This was what I told myself as I prepared my curriculum and met with other teachers, what I focused on during my first staff meeting in the Little Theater and the introduction of our new principal—a smart, no-nonsense woman with a Texas drawl. I was excited. I was prepared. I was ready.

This, of course, was before the cheating scandal, the fugitive tutor (apprehended in October by Newport Beach police), the audited grades, the controversial prom draft, the almost weekly platoon of TV news vans parked just off campus at 7 a.m. This was before I understood the cockeyed axis, that most tilted of utopias. This was before I truly understood what it meant to be part of the CdM fold.

 

Let me back up. Let me start from the beginning. Let me start with the anomaly.

The student body at Corona del Mar is, for lack of a better word, enviable. Only 2,516 students make up our entire student body this school year, and they tend to be smart, cultured, attractive, athletic, ambitious, and drive pretty sweet cars. The first things that caught me off guard, though, were the thank-yous. I noticed them the first week of school. As soon as the bell signaled the end of class, I was met with a torrent of simple, sincere thanks for the lesson as students filtered out. Odd, I thought, but really, really nice. At first I figured students were just trying to make me feel welcome. I was new; they could probably smell my fear. Yet the thank-yous continued, and even grew more frequent as the year went on.

The next thing that struck me was the students’ almost adultlike dedication. For anyone who has ever taught secondary school, you know homework is a challenge. It’s practically unheard of to receive 100 percent of a class’s homework on any given day. Yet there I was, stamping 38 out of 38 assignments on a regular basis. In fact, nearly every day at CdM, I was pleasantly surprised by quiet acts of kindness, unabashed engagement, steadfast perfectionism, and a desire to get it right. Some even conducted research at home simply because they were interested in something we discussed in class.

Even after the grade-cheating scandal which resulted in the expulsion of 11 students and the suspension of a handful more during the 2013-14 school year, the remaining students surprised me with their communal show of dismay, disappointment, and need to prove their naysayers wrong. In the weeks after that story broke, I stood by as students led whole-class discussions on the nature of integrity, honesty, and the pressure to get ahead. We discussed Lance Armstrong, Major League Baseball, Bernie Madoff, and that part of human nature in each of us that would cheat if guaranteed we wouldn’t be caught.

I played devil’s advocate and asked difficult questions, but mostly I listened as 16-year-olds struggled for the words to accurately describe their plight. The questions they raised were universal: How does one live a noble life in an ignoble world? Is it possible to do what’s right and still be the “success” their parents expect? What exactly is success?

As I listened to my students discuss pressures (grades, colleges, jobs) and stresses (homework, exams, CIF Playoff games, divorced parents, lack of sleep), I was reminded of the biblical adage, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” I was filled with a mixture of concern and pride for the students that came through my door every day. Blessed with parents who provided academic support and lavish vacations, these kids also were cursed with the expectations and demands that came with their upbringing.

Still, the vast majority were hopeful, innovative, eager advocates for change, ready to take their place in the world. Inundated with individual and social pressures to succeed, my students were happy, positive, excited about their futures. Day after day, they came to class ready to engage, keen to please, willing to put in the work … and I was rewarded not with a scowl, but with a thank-you.

As seniors trickled past me to their seats at graduation last spring, I swelled with pride—for them, for what they’d accomplished, and for the people they’d become. Each face glowed, beamed. They waved boldly to their families in the crowd. These kids knew who they were and were making no apologies for it.

Halfway through the ceremony, during an impassioned a cappella rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” the entire class of 2014 joined in with the girls on stage, clapping, singing the chorus, and dancing in their seats. I overheard someone tell his friend, “This is the best graduation ever!” and mean it. I smiled then, recognizing how loaded his comment was with a collective pride—for the school, the administrators, and a senior class that had stuck together through all the media coverage and accusations, earning admission into colleges and universities at 114 campuses around the world (including five Ivy Leagues and eight UCs), while accruing thousands of dollars in athletic and academic scholarships. For a moment, I forgot about the drama and basked in the glow of teenage pride and accomplishment, genuinely proud to be part of the fold.

Essentially, kids are kids. The kids of Corona del Mar just happen to be tinted with something special—hope and pride in the tilt of their own imperfect axis.

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